Black Face, White Mask; IQ² Debate & Children’s Rights in a Changing World: Mid-Week Reviews

By Sonia Nair and Sam Ryan

Reviews by Sonia Nair and Sam Ryan

Events covered in this week’s review wrap-up include the play that has been on the lips of many of Melbourne’s theatre enthusiasts this July: Black Face, White Mask. Also included are reviews of an Intelligence Squared debate on aid and a panel discussion – and call to action – on the matter of Children’s Rights.

 

Black Face, White Mask

By Sonia Nair

Intricately crafted and masterfully acted, Black Face, White Mask tackles the perennial question asked by Australian migrants of diverse ethnic backgrounds: who am I and do I belong here? Raw and forthright, funny and astute, the Flemington Theatre Group’s debut production, presented by Western Edge Youth Arts, is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of young, urban, African Australians grappling with the subtle nuances of their multi-faceted identity.

Bursting onto the scene with a dance sequence featuring all nine actors, the play kicks off with an infectious energy and light-hearted candour often missing from portrayals of race and identity.

The fact that all of the scenes are representations of the cast’s personal experiences may have something to do with their power. Indeed, certain dialogues – such as those that take place between the young male characters and the police – were transcribed directly from police reports.

The compelling appropriations of real life, combined with the feeling of camaraderie that emanates from the cast, results in a cohesive production full of spontaneity, vibrancy and depth that has received rave reviews from varying quarters (read them here, here, here and here).

Apart from detailing the marginalisation young Afro-Australians feel from mainstream society, the play tackles the fissures in the young Afro-Australians’ relationships with their families …

The various storylines intersect, and culminate in an insightful look into the lives led by Australia’s most recent migrants in a community largely different from their own. As an inter-racial romance blossoms between African-born Jamila and Afghan-born Harun, the latter struggles to adhere to his father’s way of life and belief structure.

Meanwhile, Jamila’s cousin, Fatima, encounters discrimination in her workplace, and Harun’s group of friends, Yusuf, Amin and Awilo, face daily harassment from the police. As Awilo dates Justine, a girl of British heritage, he remains entangled with an adopted African girl called Aisha.

Apart from detailing the marginalisation young Afro-Australians feel from mainstream society, the play tackles the fissures in the young Afro-Australians’ relationships with their families – whether it’s because they date people from racial backgrounds other than their own or they struggle to reconcile their African values and Muslim upbringing with the Australian way of life.

But perhaps the play’s most significant accomplishment is its ability to transcend the very premise it hinges upon and resonate with people from an assortment of backgrounds.

A lot of the actors play more than one character and the seamlessness with which this transpires is astonishing. With the speedy (yet effective) costume changes from one scene to the next, it becomes possible to identify certain articles of clothing that are synonymous with particular characters as the audience journeys along with them.

Particularly impressive is Legrand Andersen, who effortlessly switches from his role as a racist, intimidating police officer to that of Harun’s reticent father, who features in some of the most touching scenes in the play.

It is an achievement in itself that despite the disheartening subject matter that is its premise, Black Face, White Mask refuses to become despair. Nary a moment passes where the audience is not laughing at the inherent ability of the actors to make light of the difficult situations they have found themselves in at one point or another.

But perhaps the play’s most significant accomplishment is its ability to transcend the very premise it hinges upon and resonate with people from an assortment of backgrounds. A young African boy of barely eight or nine was cracking up throughout the performance; an older white Australian girl called the play “funny, real and deep” during the question time that proceeded after the play.

The cast members aspire to perform the play in rural indigenous areas, schools and in front of police officers – who remain the main perpetrators of widespread racial harassment towards Afro-Australians.

Black Face, White Mask had a limited run of four performances at the Tower Theatre at the Malthouse, from Thursday 12 to Saturday 14 July.

Intelligence Squared Debate: Foreign Aid is a Waste of Money

By Sam Ryan

Foreign aid is a waste of money.

That was the proposition put forward at the IQ2 Debate, hosted by the Wheeler Centre, at the Melbourne Town Hall on Wednesday 4 July.

Arguing for the proposition were The Australian’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan, member of the Management Committee ofAid/Watch, James Goodman, and Director of the Intellectual Property and Free Trade Unit at the Institute of Public Affairs, Tim Wilson.

[Greg Sheridan] … implored the audience to extend … goodwill to critics – people who simply believe there are better ways to alleviate poverty that don’t waste billions of dollars.

Defending the use of foreign aid were World Vision Australia’s Head of Public Affairs and External Relations, Martin Thomas, National Director of the Global Povety Project, Samah Hadid, and Executive Director of Oxfam Australia, Andrew Hewett.

Firstly, a summary of the arguments put forward in support of the proposition.

Greg Sheridan opened by acknowledging the difficulty that lay ahead: “Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you a man in desperate need of aid, foreign or domestic, for I fear I am destined to lose this debate,” he said.

He didn’t know it yet, but a pre-poll of the audience revealed that just ten per cent supported the proposition, while 67 per cent opposed it and 23 per cent were undecided.

While acknowledging that most who enter the aid industry are motivated by “altruism and a desire to better the lot of humanity”, he implored the audience to extend the same sense of goodwill to critics – people who simply believe there are better ways to alleviate poverty that don’t waste billions of dollars.

James Goodman … outlined many problems with aid … He did so through the context of what he says are the three main causes of poverty: debt, the cost of food and climate change.

Sheridan conceded that aid is not entirely unworkable, expressing support in situations such as natural disaster or where a society is attempting to recover from civil or international conflict.

But in general, he believes aid merely takes money from one nation’s taxpayers and puts it into the hands of another’s corrupt officials. After 35 years working as a journalist in the field in many poor nations, his conclusion is that aid is “next to useless in combating poverty, and infinitely less effective than foreign investment or free trade.”

He cited US aid in Afghanistan being paid to members of the Taliban to provide security for aid workers; the US$3.5 trillion the Chinese government holds in international currency reserves while Australian taxpayers still provide it with aid; and the “massive imbalance” of Australia’s foreign affairs and trade budget, where $800 million is spent per year on our diplomatic network and $5.2 billion on aid.

James Goodman may have been a little out of step with Sheridan and Wilson’s free-market ideology, but he outlined many problems with aid, which backed up Sheridan’s claim that foreign aid needs much greater outside scrutiny. He did so through the context of what he says are the three main causes of poverty: debt, the cost of food and climate change.

Goodman believes that aid simply deepens the problem of debt. It is loaned, via agencies like the World Bank, for projects that fit their agenda rather than the developing country’s needs, and when the project fails the developing country is left with the debt.

Tim Wilson … believes that to promote development institutional problems in developing countries need to be fixed – problems perpetuated by foreign aid’s largely top-down approach.

The developing world produces two-thirds of the world’s food and prices are rising because it cannot keep up with demand. Goodman was critical of free trade moves in agriculture by the World Trade Organisation that have enriched agribusiness while decimating small farms. He argues that this has been compounded by programs like Aid for Trade have, which have locked developing countries into agreements that are not necessarily in their interests, and can leave them more reliant on agribusiness and less able to feed themselves.

Climate change is a problem largely caused by the developed world but felt most severely by the world’s poor – ninety per cent of people displaced by climate change live in developing countries. Goodman said that, in this regard, rich countries owe a debt that is not being repaid. Rather, many continue polluting while using aid to finance projects that produce carbon credits.

While Goodman listed many legitimate problems with aid, he failed to offer solutions or alternatives.

Tim Wilson did, if from a different ideological perspective. He believes that to promote development institutional problems in developing countries need to be fixed – problems perpetuated by foreign aid’s largely top-down approach.

He also acknowledged that aid can play a role, but believes it is mostly a waste of money and misallocation of resources that has “almost universally failed as a policy mechanism to promote development. No country on earth has foreign-aided its way out of poverty, but hundreds of millions of people have traded their way out of poverty,” he said.

After all, the countries with the most economic freedom are also the wealthiest.

Wilson promoted the role migration can play in alleviating poverty, saying that working migrants send home around $440 billion each year. But he thinks the enormous potential of this policy is being missed because unions oppose it, though it would cut out aid agencies, allowing money to go directly to where it’s needed.

We should be giving people opportunities, not foreign aid, Wilson summed up.

But the question is whether these opportunities are available without aid?

Aid can foster trade by facilitating a better-educated, healthier population, and help guard against corruption by educating citizens, allowing them to hold government to account.

The first speaker in support of foreign aid, Martin Thomas, suggested that, having been born in a land of plenty in a world that spends three times more money on diet products and services than it does on foreign aid for the hungry, we have a moral obligation to help those born into extreme poverty.

Despite many grim statistics, he believes “we are winning the war on poverty.” For example, 12,000 less children under five die each day compared to 1990 thanks to the provision of vaccinations, vitamin supplements and mosquito nets.

Thomas said that aid should not take the place of improved trade and other policy measures, but that it “has a role in reaching the very poorest.”

Samah Hadid picked up on this theme, saying: “Aid is a crucial part of a set of measures that help people escape poverty … so that they don’t need aid in the future.”  Combined with things like trade, good governance and debt forgiveness, it can offer people born into broken systems the opportunity to escape extreme poverty.

Without basic literacy and numeracy skills, for example, a person’s ability to work and participate in the market is limited. Aid can foster trade by facilitating a better-educated, healthier population, and help guard against corruption by educating citizens, allowing them to hold government to account.

“Aid helps create the crucial pre-conditions for communities escaping poverty,” Hadid said, “it is not a silver bullet, but there is no simple solution to such a complex issue.”

Andrew Hewett was a fitting final speaker, summing up the issues through a discussion of good and bad aid.

“Essentially, bad aid is that aid which is motivated by the interests of the donor, rather than that of people living in poverty,” he said.

Good programs are accountable and owned by the people they are directed at. They strengthen the capacity of individuals and organisations, locally and nationally, as well as the capacity for communities to hold their governments accountable for delivery of basic services and the impacts of their decisions.

Andrew Hewett perhaps summed it up best: “Aid is important, but it’s not sufficient.”

Hewett agreed that foreign investment and fair trade are important but, like bad aid, bad quality foreign investment and bad trade policies hurt people. What really makes a difference, he argued, is good quality investment and trade, side-by-side with aid policies.

The result of the vote after the debate was, predictably, a resounding defeat of the proposition. Though there was a small, but not insignificant, shift in voting, with 27 per cent now supporting the proposition (up 17 per cent), 60 per cent opposing it (down seven per cent) and 13 per cent still undecided (down ten per cent).

In the end the numbers matter little, and don’t offer much insight into the general view of the audience. Such a complex issue cannot be easily framed around a simple, and absolute, proposition, but that is the nature of debates.

Andrew Hewett perhaps summed it up best: “Aid is important, but it’s not sufficient.”

Children’s Rights in a Changing World

By Sonia Nair

Global behemoth China made headlines recently when it criticised Australia’s treatment of Indigenous Australians and asylum seekers. That a country with such a poor human rights record of its own has such scathing criticism of Australia speaks volumes. Yet, those were just two of the topics touched upon during the talk, Children’s Rights in a Changing World, held at the University of Melbourne on 11 July 2012.

Five esteemed speakers with disparate backgrounds discussed the current state of children’s rights and wellbeing, within Australia and in the broader international realm.

Jan Owen, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Young Australians, opened with pictures of a lemonade stand, Brisbane’s Story Bridge and toads – each image owed its relevance to a personal anecdote that shaped her character and desire to be a children’s rights activist. By recounting each step in her journey, and the joy she derived from advocating children-focused policies, Owen painted an inspiring picture of her myriad experiences:

“What I love about the young people that we get to work with is they, like you, have new skills and tools we never had. If we had had social media and Twitter and Facebook like you have, it would have been phenomenal. You have tools at your fingertips that can mobilise and transform people.”

However, her talk felt tailored to the more than 100 UN Youth Australia delegates in the audience, and her call-outs on ways to alleviate child suffering and enforce rights occasionally came close to speaking only to a portion of the audience. Indeed, this was consistently the case through all of the panelists’ lectures, with the exception of Alastair Nicholson, QC and former Judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria and Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia.

Having practised in the arena of children’s rights for more than four decades, Nicholson painted a grim picture of life for many children in the 1970s, indicating the slow, yet steady, evolution of children’s rights. Children’s law and human rights law were seldom taught; domestic violence was largely seen as a norm; children were not perceived to be affected by indirect violence; and intellectually handicapped female children were sterilised, with parental consent the sole prerequisite.

The Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), however, was a “great advance”. It replaced the different divorce laws in each state and territory, removed the issue of fault from the dissolution of marriage process, and incorporated the services of psychologists, social workers and child professionals into the court’s approach towards children.

Nicholson also discussed the catalysts that have shaped his views and desire to protect children’s rights – the “appalling domestic violence” that was commonplace during his time as a junior barrister, the attitudes towards child representation and the child’s voice in court he witnessed as Chief Justice of the Family Court, child asylum seekers placed in detention, and the “great shame of our Aboriginal policy”.

He called the attitudes of both major parties towards asylum seekers, and the impact on children and families, “morally indefensible”, and criticised the lack of government consultation with Indigenous people on major policies such as the extension of the Northern Territory Intervention:

“It is a national disgrace and I am very pleased to draw attention of young people to it, as I think you people are the sort of people that have the capacity and ability to take these issues further, because we really have got to stop the behaviour that our government engages in towards Aboriginal people.”

John Tobin, a child rights expert and an Associate Professor in the Melbourne Law School, outlined the views of the Committee on the Rights of the Child on where Australia has faltered in the protection of children’s rights, listing:

  • Lack of legislative protection – awareness of children’s rights, participation in schools, violence against children, funding for disability support system, rates of STDs and school bullying;
  • Lack of coordination within the government – international aid, failure to protect privacy, sterilisation of girls with disabilities, health care in rural communities, treatment of Indigenous children and refugee children;
  • Absence of process – racial discrimination, corporal punishment, abuse and neglect of children in care, funding for mental health, early childhood education

However, Tobin warned:

“Human rights and children’s rights are controversial issues. When you walk into a different jurisdiction or discipline or area, there’s every likelihood they’ll say children’s rights aren’t useful, they aren’t helpful – a whole range of criticisms you’ll have to contend with. You must be cautious about how you approach this idea of children’s rights.”

The final speaker, children’s rights advocate Chris Varney, spoke of personal and often harrowing experiences with disadvantaged children from various backgrounds and circumstances. Varney provided a frank account of the real children who lie behind the statistics.

He claims Australia has only made “chequered progress” in human rights. Although there is a Children’s Commissioner, more youth movements, and a reduction in violence, there are very “concerning trends” when it comes to out-of-home care and the imprisonment of young Indigenous people in juvenile detention centres.

“The most powerful thing you, as a young person, have is your voice,” he said, imploring the audience to consider the voice of every young person when advocating human rights and informing change.

All in all, the speakers provided valuable viewpoints in the conceptualisation of children’s human rights with inspiring experiences, interesting observations on Australia’s current protection of rights and pertinent advice for those wishing to pursue children’s rights as a career.

To watch a recording of the lecture, click here.

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